Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Beginning

I've wanted to write a book about being an English teacher in Korea for six years now. Here's the prologue, which I sat down and hashed out at lunch today for tonight's writer's meeting. I hope you like it.

The Call

It came while you were sitting on the balcony at home. Or while you were sitting on the couch next to your best friend, waiting for the same call. Or perhaps it came while you were taking the kids you'd nannied to that really annoying restaurant they were so fond of, so you missed the call and he had to call you again, later. But it came.

"May I please speak to Mike?" Or Doug. Or Sara. The accent is crisp, and it's impossible to tell if the caller is old or young, white or yellow.

"This is she," you answer.

"My name is John Lee, and I'm the academic director for GDA Junior. My associate Eoin gave me your phone number and said you'd be expecting my call." John Lee could be anyone. You are no closer to understanding the identity of the other individual on the line. You have an uncle named John Lee and he's as whitebread as anyone.

"Yes, this is a good time to talk," you answer.

"Great," he says. "I guess my first question is, I've got your resume here in front of me, and looking at it I find myself thinking. With your experience, you could teach anywhere in the world; why in hell would you want to come to Korea?"

This is your first clue that this is not going to be a typical job interview, if any job interview conducted over the phone can be considered typical (and as an international educational mercenary, you will learn that, in fact, it can). You give your answers professionally. Or you don't. Maybe you are better at reading this faceless stranger, and you respond to his unorthodox question in kind, and the two of you hit it off great, while your friend on the couch cringes because all he can hear are your responses and not the stimulus that brought them on. Or maybe you're too nervous to make that switch, and stick to the way you've always done things. You shouldn't have been nervous. You'll later find out that this enigma, this John Lee, doesn't bother calling unless he's 99% sure he'll hire you. At any rate, in less than a half hour, the interview is over.

"Alright, thanks for your time. I will talk to my boss, and I'll be in touch soon. In the meantime, I am sending you a link to our school's website and a sample contract. My phone number is +82-11-2087-1174. I keep my phone with me at all times, even in the shower, so if you have any questions feel free to call."

The line disconnects.

'What the hell!?!' you think.

Or you turn to your friend and say, "We totally got the job."

Or you call your mom and say, "Well, I think I got a job for next year," and when she asks where, you respond, "Are you sitting down?" Because you are going to Korea.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The East is Red, and Red is in the East

Don’t call me naïve. I’m not naïve. I’m not, for example, the Other Art Teacher, who came to China without knowing it was a communist country. I shit you not. After arriving here, she kept suggesting really inappropriate religious things, such as naming the four classes in sixth grade after the saints of the gospel, and when people kept mentioning communism and China in the same sentences asked, and I quote, “I keep hearing about communism. What is that, some kind of philosophy?”

No, I’m a good American, and I know what communism is. It’s Bad. It’s so Bad that there are only 5 countries in the entire world still clinging to these ideologies (see if you can figure them out…I’ll list them at the end) But then, on the other hand, I’m not a really good American, because I really don’t give a flying fig about politics. Or history, at least not 20th century history. And it’s only been living abroad that has awakened me to these sorts of things, because your standard high school history course doesn’t exist to teach such things. It teaches civic pride and nationalism very well. Details about conflicts such as the Korean War and Vietnam….eah, not so much (actually being IN the DMZ, or the Cuchi Tunnels, though – now that will educate you real quick. And make you want to know more). The point of this digression is, there are a lot of things I didn’t know about communism.
As I mentioned last Saturday, I’m reading Lost on Planet China right now for the second time. This book has been therapeutic for me – it took me a good week to read it the first time, not because it wasn’t a riveting book but because I was savoring it. I never savor books. I’m more the “gorge yourself on books until you have to go to the vomitorium and then start all over again” kind of reader. But I savored this one, and when I got to the end, it broke my heart a little bit. It also educated me. As I said, I’m not into history or politics…or, err, even current events. Sorry if that offends, but the news is depressing and I have my hands full dealing with the depression Nature gave me without piling the news onto it. I prefer my news filtered through people who know what will be interesting to me, what I can do something about. So even though I live in China (possibly BECAUSE I live in China) there are things I had no idea about. Such as the Falun Gong. I’ll let you look that one up on your own, because looking it up was what led me to last Saturday’s field trip. See, apparently the PRC still makes propaganda posters. The Falun Gong haven’t been around that long, and yet, the Wikipedia page has propaganda posters about them. It’s a funny thing to think about, that in this digital day and age governments would bother with propaganda. But then, without unfiltered media, I guess they could be effective. So I went to the Propaganda Poster Art Center to learn more.
I like the fact that “art” is in the name of the museum. Lots of the posters really are beautiful works of art. And the PPAC is a great place, because let’s face it, posters don’t get a lot of respect and the owner/curator, Yang Pei Ming, has done us a favor by collecting them, because so many of these posters were destroyed after their day was over. But it’s interesting, as an outsider, to look at them. I teach my fifth graders a unit on propaganda posters, and as we look at propaganda from WWII I draw attention to the fact that we know how ridiculous these statements are now, but that the people living then found it easier to believe. As I laughed out loud at this one, I wondered if my students would find it ridiculous, as well…
I won’t say anything else – I’ve probably gotten myself into enough trouble with my ramblings this month. Suffice it to say that it was the most interesting museum I’ve been to since DC’s Spy Museum. The PPAC is at the corner of Huashan Lu and Changle Lu, and pretty much equidistant from the metro stations at Jiangsu Lu (on lines 2 and 11), Changshu Lu (on lines 1 and 7) and Shanghai Library (line 10), so find yourself a map, pick your metro line, and go there, because it’s well worth the 20 kuai admission price. And the Bund is nowhere NEAR this exciting these days…
*(The five??? China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba. Those are the easy ones. You should have gotten those. Especially since Korea and Vietnam were mentioned in the post, and Castro’s on one of the cards. Extra credit if you knew the fifth one was Laos.)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

French Kissed

So I left the house this morning on a quest to visit one of the places stuck to my laptop on a tiger-shaped post-it note. I made it there (I'll write about it soon, but I need to do some scanning first), and afterwards found myself wondering what else I might do on this beautiful Saturday afternoon. An Aussie traveler who'd just come out of the museum sat down next to me, pondering the same thing, and asked for suggestions. I sent him off to Tianzifang, but opted to go on a walk-about myself. It occurred to me that I've never written about the French, excuse me, former French Concession (apparently there is some touchiness about that title - harkens back to the humiliating days of colonialism - and a pizza restaurant recently had to issue a public apology for listing their address as the French Concession) and today seemed like a good opportunity to rectify that situation.

My first night out in Shanghers, long ago, was in the French Concession (in for a penny, in for a pound - if I'm going to get in trouble with the glorious People's Republic of China, it will probably not be for dropping the Former, and I'm feeling rebellious...I'm blaming this on my second reading in a month of J. Maarten Troost's Lost on Planet China) with Roisin. We went to this place called the Boxing Cat Brewery, which was probably wasted on a Mormon girl, but it was fun anyways, and they have pretty good virgin drinks there, not to mention the food. I'd met Roisin briefly twice - we were two weiguk ships passing in the Korean night, back in the day, but we both seemed to be of the opinion that anyone who's cool by Bronte is cool by me, and that has proven to be a pretty good rule of thumb. And what is cool by Roisin has proven to be cool by me, as well. Also, she told me that whatever I had to do to have heated floors come winter would be worth it, and boy, was she right. Of course, the French Concession is pretty much cool with EVERY foreigner who steps foot in Shanghai. Everybody wants to live there (okay, everybody but me - give me heated floors and toilets that flush properly over quaint apartments anyday). This is probably because it tricks you into thinking you're NOT IN CHINA ANYMORE.

After all, a scene like this you would expect in Paris more than Shanghai. Of course, Shanghai was once known as the Paris of the East, and this is where the Frenchies made their homes, so I suppose that makes sense. But you just don't expect to see this
and this
just blocks away from each other. It's an area of old apartments with lots of character, in interesting shapes with more than one level. It has Irish pubs, Greek restaurants, clothing boutiques, and shops selling knickknacks. And if you want to feel like you are somewhere besides China, you are more likely to get that here than anywhere else in the city. But as for me, I'll keep K-Town, thank you very much. As I pulled up to the A.P.T. on the bike the other day, I heard, "Mi-guk," and the ensuing conversation I had with a couple of Korean school children warmed the cockleburrs of my little heart. Ahssahbyo!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Springtime for Mao

There is one, just one, beautiful season in Shanghai. Blink, and you will miss the budding forsythia, the blooming cherry trees, the blossoming redbuds, and the weather...well, that's still unpredictable. Monday I wore my LIGHT leather jacket on a nice long walk before school, and it was too hot. Yesterday I wore my linen pants, but forgot that the storm that blew in the night before (some nice, albeit brief lightning and a hard shower) could drop the temperature 18 degrees fahrenheit, and realized, when I started to head off on my bike, that I was going to be too cold. However, the reward for putting up with this weather is scenes like this...
Or this...
Or even this (this is on my street, walking from the apartment to the subway at Longbai Xincun)...
Well, I promised you one blog a week, and I figure I should make myself useful and write about more than just the flowers, so I decided to visit the flower market. Okay, maybe that's still just writing about the flowers. And yet, the flower market is more than just a flower market. You can buy all sorts of things here - antiques, fish (the kind you keep for pets), handicrafts, and you can get paintings framed here for really cheap. During December it's the best remedy if you find yourself missing Christmas carols and the smell of pine. To get to this wonderland, go to Longbai Xincun on line 10, and go out exit 5. Walk straight (north) along Hongjing Lu up to the light, then cross over so that you end up catty corner, and keep going. A half a block later, you'll come to a large gate that looks like this:
Now, it's called the flower market for a reason. Want flowers?
We've got them. Oh, you wanted LIVE flowers, growing in a pot?
Got those, too. Want to try your hand at keeping a bonsai tree alive (for the fourth time)?
We can make that happen, and at a significantly lower price than you'd pay in the states. Let's say you love orchids, but don't want to throw the money away on them, knowing they are persnickety and bound to die in your care?
Doesn't matter - they're so cheap here that you can buy a new one every couple of weeks without breaking the bank. And if you've gotten fed up with being eaten alive by mosquitos, we've got the solution for that, too.
The next building in has animals and ceramics and crafts and antiques, but rather than put even more pictures of THINGS on here, I'll leave you with a little Chinese slice of life, because you can't be angry here on a beautiful tomb sweeping holiday! Hope you're having a good week, too.
Not sure what they're doing, here in the sun-dappled space between the two buildings, but they seem to be having a good time.